UNICEF, the United Nations Children’s Fund, has issued a new report on FGM/C, female genital mutilation/cutting, that raises troubling questions about the practice and the American response to it, particularly in nations such as Egypt.
“Girls and women are made to have their external genitalia removed fully or partially– some when they are just infants, others when they hit puberty,” explains UNICEF, “in the name of preserving female honour, chastity, beauty, ensuring their marriageability.” Kheiriya Abidi, a 10-year-old Somali girl is “terrified of the blood, the pain and physical torture she will have to suffer if her genitals are cut.” As another description notes, untrained practitioners do the cutting with instruments such as broken glass, tin lids, scissors or unsterilized razors, and without anesthesia. This causes intense pain and trauma, and poses health risk such as HIV transmission, and worse.
UNICEF notes that more mothers are now aware that “FGM/C can lead to their daughter’s, or a girl’s, death.” The report finds a “sharp decline” in FGM/C in numerous countries. Among adolescent girls in Benin, the Central African Republic, Iraq, Liberia and Nigeria, FGM/C has dropped by as much as half. All told, female genital mutilation has been inflicted on more than 125 million women and girls, roughly equivalent to the entire population of Japan. Nearly half of the victims reside in Ethiopia and Egypt, a country much in the news.
UNICEF explains that FGM/C is not an Islamic custom, not in the Quran, and not practiced by many Islamic communities. But female genital mutilation and cutting remains prevalent in Egypt, an Islamic country where about 80 percent of women aged 15 to 19 have been cut compared to 96 percent of women in their late 40s. By these numbers, the vast majority of Egyptian woman and girls are victims of female genital mutilation, performed in Egypt by a trained physician in more than 75 percent of cases.
In 2008, under Hosni Mubarak, Egypt criminalized all forms of FGM and the number of mutilated girls dropped by about one third. But the rise of Islamism and the Muslim Brotherhood canceled those gains. Under Mohamed Morsi, the courts rejected challenges to FGM/C. Nehad Abud Komsan, director of the Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights, explained that the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafist politicians “are destroying years of efforts to protect girls and women in Egypt and, unfortunately, by using religion.”
Geeta Rao Gupta, deputy executive director of UNICEF, charges that “FGM/C is a violation of a girl’s rights to health, well-being and self-determination.” She says that “legislation alone is not enough” and wants “this harmful practice” abandoned. So for UNICEF female genital mutilation is a human rights issue — this from an agency of the United Nations, which generally performs poorly on the human rights front in the Middle East and Africa.
The United States has often denounced human rights violations in the USSR, Russia, Cuba, North Korea, South Africa and other countries. But concerns over FGM/C as a human rights violation failed to gain traction in U.S. policy toward Egypt, where the last two U.S. ambassadors have been women: Margaret Scobey and Anne W. Patterson, the current incumbent.
On the other hand, former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has offered solidarity with African women opposed to FGM/C. “We cannot excuse this as a cultural tradition” she said, invoking “the rights of young girls to be free from both physical and mental violence.” That emerged in a February 2013 statement from Geeta Pasi, U.S. ambassador to Djibouti.
President Obama signed “Transport for Female Genital Mutilation” an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act for 2013. But the president has not made FGM/C an issue in Egypt or Kenya, where genital mutilation of women and girls remains accepted practice. That is still the case in much of Africa and the Middle East, but American feminists, allegedly concerned about violence against women, have not made female genital mutilation one of primary causes.
Following the release of the UNICEF report, the top issue on the website of the National Organization for Women was justice for Trayvon Martin, followed by praise for the Supreme Court decision on gay marriage. Muslim activists have likewise failed to raise the FGM/C issue.
In Pakistan, where FGM/C is reportedly on the increase, the victims include British girls of Pakistani origin. Girls are told they are going on vacation to see relatives but remain “unaware that their parents are taking them to Pakistan to carry out the FGM procedure.”
Pakistani-American Sadia Saifuddin, the first Muslim to serve as a University of California student regent, is not denouncing FGM/C or calling for the UC system to divest itself from countries that allow the practice. Rather, she spearheads a campaign to divest UC funds from companies affiliated with the Israeli military.
Violence, torture, mutilation, terrorized, trauma, death. The vocabulary leaves no doubt that female genital mutilation is savage barbarism. By calling for its worldwide elimination, the United Nations Children’s Fund shows itself stronger on a vital human rights issue than American politicians, feminist groups and Muslim activists.
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